Sunday, February 1, 2015

Old Oldboy vs. new Oldboy

I have been wanting to see Spike Lee's Oldboy since it came out ... but I have also been wanting to reacquaint myself with Park Chan-wook's Oldboy before I did so.

Both are streaming on Netflix, so I figured, might as well make it an Oldboy Weekend. So I did this past Friday and Saturday nights.

I realized recently that although I hold Park's original, the middle of his Vengeance Trilogy, in very
high esteem, I could remember very little about it.
There was the classic fight scene and the classic tooth removal scene, but I couldn't even remember why the character needed vengeance in the first place. A little jogging of my memory reminded me that he was locked away for 15 years and then mysteriously released back into the world, but what happened from there remained a blur.

In fact, I probably would have watched it again long before now if I hadn't persisted in the belief that the version streaming on Netflix was dubbed into English. My friend Scott watched over an hour of it while he was babysitting for us back in the first few months of my older son's life. The restlessness of my son kept him from watching the whole thing, but he didn't get back to it on his own (at least, I don't think he did) because he wasn't enjoying it as much as he thought he was supposed to be -- and that could have everything to do with the fact that it was dubbed.

When I found it again on Netflix, I marveled at two things: 1) It's no longer dubbed, and 2) Netflix wanted to know if I wanted to "resume" my viewing. That's right, Netflix still had a record of the fact that someone on this account had started watching this movie on December 22, 2010. Talk about a long memory.

I'm glad I saw it again rather than just going into Spike Lee's cold, because it gave me a good means of assessing the success or failure of Lee's effort. (You can argue whether it's fair to judge a movie against the movie it's remaking, but it's only human nature that we do so.)

And honestly, I was expecting to hate Lee's version. People I trust have said it's terrible, and Lee is someone I have trusted a lot less in recent years (I greatly disliked Red Hook Summer and avoided The Miracle of St. Anna altogether).

You know what? Lee's version is fine. Really it is. Better than fine, maybe.

Not better than the original. I will never go that far. But a worthy attempt to remake a popular Korean film? Sure, why not?

I think what struck people as so strange about Spike Lee remaking Oldboy was that this director had chosen this project in particular. Nothing about his resume suggests that it is a good match for him.

But let's set aside Lee's affiliation and look at it merely as a business idea. Remaking Oldboy is no stranger than remaking any of the dozens of other hot Asian properties from which Hollywood has tried to spin gold, most notably the horror franchises The Ring and The Grudge. Those films are not Korean, but Bong Joon-ho's The Host had been lined up for an American remake that has apparently stalled out. The objection you could have to remaking Oldboy is the objection you could have to remaking any great film whose legacy should not be tarnished.

It's actually almost too shrewd, too Hollywood a move for someone like Lee. It did not seem to fit his character, and in fact, the movie does not have a major studio's backing. It was distributed by FilmDistrict, which has since been absorbed into Focus Features. But wouldn't that almost suggest that Lee would be free to bring something fresh, something original, something funky to the project?

Maybe that's why people were so disappointed -- there is very little of Lee in this film, or so it would seem. One of the supporting roles goes to Samuel L. Jackson, whom Lee put on the map back in 1991 with Jungle Fever, and there's one instance of Lee's trademark dolly shot, where a character appears to be floating through his environment. Beyond that, though, any studio hack probably could have made this.

Which is not to say it's clumsy. In fact, it feels quite technically accomplished in a lot of ways, in the sense that it is a clean, crisp, unfussy telling of the story that excises details of the original story that, indeed, may have been superfluous.

Of what do I speak? Well, I may be getting into a bit of spoiler territory now, so look away if you don't want anything spoiled.

One thing I noted is that the character the main character tells his story to is gone. In the original Oldboy, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) emerges from his suitcase atop a building, where a businessman is contemplating suicide nearby. He saves him, momentarily, from this suicide attempt by grasping his tie as he starts to plummet over the edge of the building. After Oh tells him the story of being imprisoned for 15 years, and leaves the man by himself, he actually does go through with it, caving in the roof of a nearby car. It's as though this final glimpse at man's inhumanity to man was what convinced him to go through with it, rather than the story saving him in some way.

Is this character really necessary, though? It wouldn't seem so -- though the shot of Oh hanging on to the man creates a visual parallel to the method Lee Woo-jin used to kill his sister, an event that occurred in the past but has not yet been visualized in the movie.

Yeah, so Lee just gets rid of him altogether. No great loss, really.

Lee also lessens the screen time of the villain (Sharlto Copley's captor has only a couple scenes, and is not nearly the unhinged scenery chewer I was led to believe he'd be), and does away with the explanation for how the villain got the captive and his daughter to fall in love. Park has them both hypnotized, whereas in Lee's film, their meeting relies on the meddling of an intermediary (played by Michael Imperioli) who pretends to be on the captive's side (he's named Joe Doucett in this one, and played by Josh Brolin). The hypnotism element comes back in to Park's film at the end, when Oh wants to forget that he shagged his own daughter and tries to have the memory hypnotized out of him (though possibly not successfully -- the ending is vague on that front). But you don't really feel its absence in Lee's film.

Naturally, then, the ending is a bit different too. In neither film does the daughter find out that she has had incest with her father, but the fate of her father is quite different in the two films. While the ending of Park's film is clearly tragic, Lee opts for optimism, with both Joe (who has chosen to return to his imprisonment, somewhat inexplicably) and his daughter Mia (Elizabeth Olsen, who drives off to start a new life) with smiles on their faces. I wouldn't call it a happy ending, exactly, but it certainly leaves the characters pointing in the direction of a brighter future.

The details of the scandal the main character witnesses differ as well. In Park's film, Oh sees his eventual captor fooling around with his own sister, a rumor he ends up sort of passively spreading, without any malicious intent. In Lee's, it's his captor's sister and her father he sees in sexual congress, and spreads the rumor willfully and mean-spiritedly. Perhaps Lee thought that in the age of bullying as a serious social issue, the film needed to come down strongly and unambiguously against bullying -- even if it means his protagonist is more guilty and less sympathetic. Lee's film is further on the side of Copley's character in the sense that it's his father, not himself, who is ultimately responsible for taking his sister's life.

Then there are the more minor details, like how Oh and Joe tortue the man hired to keep him locked up. (And yes, I am just now realizing that Oh Dae-su and Joe Doucett are nearly identical sounding names.) Oh engages in that aforementioned act of tooth removal, while Joe performs a ritual that's supposed to be more gruesome but ultimately has less effect on the viewer -- he removes little bloody chunks from Sam Jackson's neck as part of a plan to eventually pull his head off with his bare hands.

The other scene you're probably wondering about is how Lee handles that famous fight scene, the one where Oh has only a hammer and has to fight off an alley full of henchmen trying to get him. The famous things about this shot are two: 1) It is shot entirely from a side angle, like the character in a video game walking left to right and seeing what he encounters next, and 2) It is performed all in one take. While the fight choreography might be slightly less accomplished in Lee's version, and there's a notable lack of blood involved, Lee doubles down on the complexity of the shot by having it continue down a ladder and on a second level, where the challenge essentially resets for Joe. The effect of this little bit of cinematic bravura is pretty much what Lee would have intended.

But I guess the real issue with Lee's version is that it's just not, I don't know, weird in the ways Park's version is. One of the great moments in Park's film is when Oh eats a live octopus, kind of stuffing it into his face as the legs continue to squirm around, making it certainly seem like Choi actually did eat the live octopus to get this shot. Then there's the desperate pleading of Oh in the final scene when he wants to prevent his daughter from finding out that he's her father. Not only does he promise to be his captor's dog, licking his shoe and crawling around on all fours, but he then puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak, by cutting out his own tongue. It's a mad moment of atonement that really resonates. In Lee's film, both of these scenes are alluded to, but that's it -- one in a shot where Brolin examines an octopus hugging the glass wall of a fish tank, and the other in the form of a severed tongue (of Imperioli's character, I believe) being sent in a box to Joe from his captor. One senses that he considered trying to match the outrage of Park, but just went limp in the attempt.

I should probably point out a couple of moment of real awkwardness in Lee's film, as well. Notably, the first 15 minutes are just terrible. They involve Joe sabotaging an important business deal in the most ridiculous manner imaginable -- he essentially has his client on the hook, but then blows it by making a pass at the client's girlfriend while the client is in the bathroom. Even if this is meant to indicate that Joe is a real jerk, and the rest of the movie is supposed to function as a redemption of that jerk, I didn't buy it for a second and in fact thought it was clumsy as hell. Brolin's performance of his subsequent drunkenness is pretty over-the-top, but that's actually consistent with Park's approach, as we meet Oh in a police station where he's a soused mess.

Speaking of Brolin's acting, his reaction to learning that he has slept with his own daughter needed to be re-shot, as it has a bit of an "Annakin Skywalker realizing Padme is dead" quality to it. Given that this is the movie's emotional climax, Brolin and Lee really needed to sit down and re-think it.

Still, this movie doesn't quite deserve its bad reputation. And lo and behold, after finishing Lee's Oldboy, I discovered that the movie's reputation is not quite as bad as I thought it was. Metacritic's 49 score for it translates to "mixed or average reviews," which include a 91 from none other than one of my personal critical heroes, Owen Gleiberman, who was then of Entertainment Weekly. That's to balance out the zero from The New York Observer's Rex Reed, I guess.

Okay, that's just about enough of that. Out with the Oldboy, in with the new.

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